How an Instagram project turned into personal reflection for artist Katie Zhu


Artist Katie Zhu’s latest Instagram project is a series called “AND ! OR.” It touches on how too often we try to fit ourselves into one box — when we likely fit in more than one.

Katie Zhu is an independent artist who after going to college for journalism and computer science, then working in the tech industry, felt something was missing.

Initially drawn to creative storytelling and writing, Zhu took an art class a couple years ago. It renewed her interest in art and then some. She says she found in herself again the “natural creativity” we all have as children, but unfortunately that creativity isn’t nurtured as we grow up.

Zhu, determined to ensure that creativity didn’t go away, quit her tech industry job in March and set out on a path to nurture it herself. Now, writing could have been the path she went on, but Zhu notes after the 2016 election, she felt blocked in that medium. Illustration became the best outlet for her, instead. One of her first noteworthy posts was this simple but impactful sketch following the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“I wanted to find my best way to contribute and be involved,” Zhu says of this piece.

Zhu also helped work on the letter from young Asian-Americans to their families regarding Black Lives Matter; a project initiated by her friend, Christina Xu.

“That was one of the first bigger projects I was involved in the social activism space. I wanted to contribute to the cause and found it to be really rewarding,” Zhu says. “That set the tone for me to start thinking about all aspects of my work, to always be thinking about contributing.”

Thus Zhu’s #100Dayproject series titled “AND ! OR.” began. Zhu credits author Kelly Corrigan and The Nantucket Project for inspiring the idea. In her initial Instagram post for the series, Zhu wrote “too often we wind up putting ourselves or the choices we make into discrete boxes: this OR that. when really, the line is never that clear. women contain multitudes. AND ! OR will explore the seemingly opposing facets of life, relationships, and identity.”

Zhu says since the project began, the feedback has been both positive and encouraging. While some posts are light-hearted like the initial one above, others bring up topics that could be seen as controversial. For example, the post below that reads “I love sex and I masturbate.”

“Female masturbation is nothing to be ashamed of,” Zhu shared on Instagram. “It’s a healthy way of expressing one’s sexuality. Male masturbation is much more accepted, chalked up to ‘dudes being dudes,’ but there’s a different standard when it comes to women of all definitions. It gets awkward and uncomfortable. but it’s a great stress reliever so ladies: live your best lives.”

“People have tagged friends, saying it is super relatable. Some have thanked me for sharing, for being vulnerable,” Zhu says of her work so far. Many of the posts “resonate with a lot of people… maybe they hadn’t found the words or ways to say these things themselves.”

A few posts that were vulnerable for Zhu were ones discussing food and money.

“I’ve always had a complicated relationship with food,” Zhu says. “There was one post I did that reads ‘Food brings me joy and brings me shame.’ I think for me, there was a cultural dimension to it and societal aspect of it. The expectations of how women look, being skinny or curvy in the right places. On the other hand, food for me is the primary way I connect with my culture.”

A few other favorites for Zhu were her posts revolving around money and her experience as a millennial. Since leaving her fulltime job, Zhu wrote on Instagram “when I left my job, I wasn’t optimizing for money, I was prioritizing my passion, creativity, and personal ambition.”

She added that “while of course there are things in life more important than money, money makes so much possible. It opens doors, creates opportunities, affects both your mental and physical health.” However, there is a wage gap, especially for women of color, and she touched on how women should “never be ashamed to demand to be paid what we deserve.”

Moving forward, Zhu hopes to explore more of the Asian-American female experience in her creative work, as well as the topic of women and money.

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You can find more of Zhu’s work including her “AND ! OR” series on her Instagram.